Crossing Boundaries: Leadership Transition at Identity, Inc. in Alaska

April in Alaska is always a time of change, and this year is no exception. On April 26, Identity Inc., one of Anchorage’s first LGBTQ-specific organizations, will bid a fond farewell to its long-time leader Phyllis Rhodes.

Phyllis has overseen Identity’s work since 2005, serving that entire time as an unpaid volunteer executive director. Fortunately she is leaving the organization at a time of expansion, passing the reigns to Drew Phoenix, who will become the organization’s first ever full-time paid executive director.

Identity provides an array of critical services for the region’s LGBTQ community. It operates the Helpline and the Gay & Lesbian Community Center. It organizes the state’s annual PrideFest, and in the fall, coordinates an annual educational summit called Pride Conference.

Partnering with other institutions like the Anchorage Public Library, and regional schools, Identity also provides essential support to south-central Alaska’s LGBTQ and allied youth with Q-Club (a citywide youth group), Pride Prom, and the statewide Youth Summit. The support and resources offered by Identity provide a lifeline for many LGBTQ individuals in Alaska.

Pride Foundation’s relationship with Identity began in 1996 with a modest grant of $1,000. Since that time, Identity has been a trusted partner and collaborator in our movement for full equality. When discussions began in 2009 to determine the best way to deepen and expand Pride Foundation’s relationships across our five-state region, Identity provided important guidance and advice.

For Identity, Pride Foundation is an important funder without whose support many programs may not exist. “Pride Foundation’s support has been a key part of Identity’s success,” said Phyllis. “There was a time when no other foundations would grant us money because we didn’t have a paid staff.”

As Identity prepares to chart a new course under Drew’s guidance, we sat down with both leaders to talk about Phyllis’ role in shaping the organization and Drew’s vision for the path forward.

“I guess I was in the right place at the right time,” explains Phyllis about her arrival nearly ten years ago. “Everybody was so ready to make things happen in this community. Identity came to be the center for that energy.”

Though she began volunteering at Identity before she fully understood its mission, Phyllis worked hard to grow the organization into something she was proud to be a member of—something that was only possible with the help of others. And she leaves behind a long list of accomplishments and a significant legacy for change and progress.

“That’s our strength, we’re very grassroots,” Drew explained. “Our reputation for empowering and fostering leadership is unmatched. It’s really a huge thing that Phyllis has created.”

Of all of Phyllis’ accomplishments, recognition of the LGBTQ and allied community from the local business community, and the related partnerships that were forged from that connection, stand the tallest.

“Glenn Cravez, founder of One Anchorage, One Economy deserves the lion’s share of the credit,” Phyllis explained.

“After the election that fateful April [2012], where we were not able to get the votes to add sexual [orientation and gender] identity to the municipal code, he didn’t let it drop,” said Phyllis. “Nobody wanted to be the first one to step out publicly. It was people gingerly stepping up.”

Phyllis and Glenn continued to make connections and urged people to take a stance. Since then, Andrew Halcro and the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce have stepped up, and the effort has been recognized by the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation.

For Phyllis, the role she played in elevating Identity’s community presence was critical.

Known for her warmth and humor, Phyllis uses that same energy to help fuel Identity’s work. “If you can have fun and know you’re appreciated, it gives you personal power to get involved,” Phyllis said. It’s the same spirit that has carried the organization through difficult times, as well, like the ballot initiative to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the city’s non-discrimination ordinance.

“Talk to any of the volunteers who worked on the One Anchorage campaign, and they will tell you we had fun,” said Phyllis. “Whether we were gathering signatures in 20-below weather, or making phone calls in the small office space, you could always look forward to going to work.”

Drew first got involved with identity in 2010.

“It’s all about one thing that draws me to people: it’s passion,” said Phyllis. “That’s what I initially saw in Drew, and it’s why I asked him to join the board.”

“There were no self-identified transgender people on the board,” he said. “I feel personally responsible to create change for the next generation, so when I’m asked I say yes.”

That optimism still drives hope for the future, for both Drew and Phyllis. Both have ambitions that Identity will become a statewide connector of individuals to community resources, and both share the same audacious end-goal.

“I hope that we cross these boundaries—even more—of race, ethnicity, and class, and do more coalition building with organizations whose constituents and clients aren’t treated equally either,” Drew said. “My goal is that eventually we disappear, that there’s no longer a reason for us to exist because people everywhere have greater pride and confidence, safety and security.”

For Phyllis, this will result in “a sense of wellbeing.”

To help celebrate Phyllis and Identity, visit their website for tickets and more information.

Josh Hemsath is Pride Foundation’s regional development organizer in Alaska. Email Josh.


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